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  • Writer's pictureTesia Bryski, MEd, RP

COVID-19 – A Social Distancing Toolkit for Managing Pandemic Anxiety

Physical distancing, a language that lands on us all better than social distancing. What we need most right now is connection; connection with others, and a connection with ourselves.

Feeling anxious? That’s okay! Anxiety is extremely normal and quite valid in this situation – there is a lot of noise in the world and collectively, I believe we are all experiencing a gentle background hum of fear. It’s in the air! Ground yourself when you notice the onset of racing thoughts or embodied anxiety (that tightness in your jaw or pit in your stomach? That’s anxiety!) Take a moment, step away from social media or from the news, press your feet into the floor and take a few deep, long breaths. Anchor your awareness in your breathing, the feeling in your hands, or an object in your sight. When you notice your mind wander, call yourself present and return to the anchor. Keep returning until you notice your body soften and your mind soothed.

Structure – Anxiety is bred in the unknown. Too often does our mind wander off into the “what ifs –“, inevitably triggering more anxiety in our mind’s eye as we catastrophize, fortune-tell, and follow a spiral of worry. Simply put, it’s important to find a structure and routine in your day. Create predictability in an otherwise unpredictable situation. Whether that’s waking up at a normal time, scheduling activities, or creating rituals with your partner, *virtual* friends or family, predictability is imperative. While we are unable to control what’s happening outside of us, pay attention to how you are responding to these circumstances – that response itself is definitely within our locus of control.

Balance - Simple, if we can mitigate our exposure to the unknown, we can surely regulate our anxiety levels. Balance is the name of the game. We are creatures of knowledge, and oftentimes we can get extremely carried away in an “All or Nothing” pattern of thinking or behaviours. This occurs in the endless spirals of social media exposure; reading, re-reading and sharing articles that pertain to the outbreak. If our awareness is constantly flooded by pandemic stories and statistics, it occupies an alarming amount of space in our minds and inevitably increases our level of activation (activation = stress in the body – wondering why you can’t fall asleep right away?). Be mindful of inviting balance into your day; capping off the social media & news exposure with physical activity, working on a project, creating something with your hands, or just relaxing!

Be Realistic – It’s OK to not make the most out of this time. It’s OK to not exercise every day, to not pick up a new hobby like meditation or colouring, and to not want to Facetime someone every hour. It’s important to acknowledge the stressful nature of this time – and even validating that fact can be challenging enough! We have virtual access to everything under the sun at this time. And that accessibility can be quite overwhelming if we get lost in what we think we “should” be doing. Even the unlimited access to social media fitness classes & do-it-yourself activities breeds a certain amount of pressure for us to perform perfectly as it feeds the comparative mind. There’s a good chance your body and mind need rest. Notice the expectations that you are placing upon yourself and be real with yourself for a moment: is that expectation realistic? Be honest with what you really need during this time.

If you are working from home, it may be time to shift the expectations and focus on training and development, using this time to refine your educational craft. We could all use some finetuning!

Zoom Out – We are all in this together! Oftentimes when we get anxious or stressed, we turn inwards. If you notice yourself ‘zooming in’ – getting lost in the anxious spiral – take a moment to step back. This is a collective trauma that is affecting the whole world, and there is a good chance that your friend, colleague, neighbour or roommate is experiencing that same level of anxiety. Be gentle with yourself and with others – compassion is of the utmost importance at this tender time. Have you ever been upset and had someone say, “just be happy! You’re going to be fine.”? That’s the opposite of compassion. Compassion is meeting yourself and others in their moment of suffering and resisting the urge to want that suffering to go away. Compassion is finding the common ground between yourself and others and saying, “I hear you. I see you. What do you need right now?” – and the caveat? Compassion towards others requires self-compassion. Go easy on yourself, be gentle and respond directly to your needs. Validate your feelings and validate the feelings of others. Research demonstrates that communities are strengthened during and after collective traumas!

Stay Motivated – Motivation thrives on incentive and accountability. Stay connected – challenge your friends to achieve their daily goals and keep them going; and invite your friends to hold you to your daily goals, too! Accountability is a two-way street. It’s easier to remain accountable to a friend or family member than it is to ourselves. However, motivation is a mindset (it's also a myth - it's something you create!). Be mindful of the story you’re telling yourself as you are met with a challenge; that story may be invalidating or even limiting. Shift your stance towards this experience and see if you can find opportunities in this whole situation. Set healthy, realistic goals, invite a friend to do the same, and lead by example. Once the ball starts to roll, it’s hard to stop it! That can be said for both anxiety and for positive motivation – which one will you choose?


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